Savvy shoppers know they can save big on a loaf of bread at Dollarama.
But at more than a dozen of the Quebec-based company’s stores in Nova Scotia, there’s no bread on the shelves.
Those stores have one thing in common: there’s a Sobeys nearby.
Mary Wilson went shopping at Dollarama’s Cole Harbour location last month, and she asked a staff member if they sold bread. Wilson knew another Dollarama nearby sold bread. That’s where she usually got it.
“When I couldn’t find it, I asked one of the employees if they still carry bread,” Wilson said in an interview with the Halifax Examiner.
“He said, ‘We used to, but we don’t anymore.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘We can’t sell it anymore because Sobeys owns the building and it’s a big moneymaker, and we’re not allowed to sell it.’”
Wilson said she was “angry” with the response.
Wilson shops around for bread
“I do have a budget, for staples especially, things I use often. I go to where I know they are going to be the best price,” she said.
“Like most people, I look for ways to save money on groceries, and yes, Superstores sell the Wonder Bread that I buy, the bread that’s owned by Canada Bread, and it was two for $6.50, but if you buy one, it’s $3.79, not $2.50 like it is in Dollarama.”
Wilson said she has a car and is able to comparison shop at Sobeys, Superstore, Giant Tiger, Costco, Walmart, and Dollarama to find the best prices.
“So, I am not disadvantaged in all of this,” said Wilson. “My anger is that bread is a staple. In my opinion, it’s a staple food. Why are there so many prices on it and why is there such a huge markup? Why isn’t it regulated like milk? Why are they making money off a food that is a staple?”
Wilson said she didn’t contact Dollarama’s head office or ask the staff at the Cole Harbour location if the policy on bread applied to other products Dollarama sells that Sobeys or other retailers might sell.
Dollarama is a Quebec-based chain of retail stores with more than 1,000 locations across Canada. The stores sell products at various price points from $5 and under.
The Examiner goes shopping
On Friday, the Examiner went bread shopping.
At the Dollarama in Clayton Park, we purchased a loaf of white Wonder Bread for $2.50 and a loaf of Country Harvest 14-grain bread for $3.
At Sobeys, we purchased a loaf of Compliments white bread for $3.29, a loaf of Ben’s Holsum white bread for $3.69, and a loaf of Dempster’s 12-grain bread for $4. We were told Sobeys doesn’t carry the Wonder Bread brand.
A pattern emerges
The Halifax Examiner called or visited Dollarama locations across Nova Scotia, 43 in total. Here’s a map showing which stores sell bread, and which don’t:
Based on these calls and visits, property records searches, and corporate landlords’ websites, the Examiner has identified a pattern: when a Dollarama in Nova Scotia shares a property with a Sobeys, it doesn’t sell bread.
In some of those cases, Sobeys is also effectively the landlord, through Crombie REIT, the real estate investment trust in which the grocer’s parent company owns a 41.5% stake. But the pattern holds no matter the landlord.
There are four exceptions, however. The Dollaramas in Antigonish and Cole Harbour don’t sell bread, and don’t share a property with Sobeys. In both cases, there is a Sobeys in the immediate area, but it’s on a different, Crombie-owned property.
And the Dollaramas in Windsor and North Sydney are located in malls where there is a Sobeys store, and those Dollaramas do sell bread. Neither property is owned by Crombie.
When we stopped at one Dollarama location, we asked the clerk at the checkout if they sold bread. They said no, because it was a competing product with the Sobeys in the same building.
'Apparently, they don’t let us'
During some of our visits and phone calls to stores, some staff at Dollarama locations told us they weren't permitted to sell bread because their stores are in the same buildings as a Sobeys or close to a Sobeys location.
We called one Dollarama in a community where there are two locations and spoke with a staff person at the location that doesn’t sell bread. When we asked why that location doesn’t sell bread, but the other location does, the staff person said, “I think there was a conflict here with Sobeys. We’re located close to Sobeys and we do not sell bread.”
We stopped into a second Dollarama location to search for bread. When we asked the clerk at the checkout if they sold bread, they said they didn’t because it was a competing product with the Sobeys in the same building.
Later in the day, we called that same store and a manager said they weren’t sure if they were allowed to say why their Dollarama location couldn’t sell bread, but added it was because the Dollarama store is “connected to Sobeys.”
We called a third Dollarama and asked if they sold bread and were told no. When we then asked to speak with the store's manager, that staff person said, “is it about the bread thing? I can tell you why we don’t.
"It’s because Sobeys owns the land that our store is on, so we can’t sell it. They don’t let us."
Another staff person said, “it has to do with, we rent from Sobeys."
"Apparently, they don’t let us."
That person said they didn’t know how long that policy’s been in place, but they passed us along to the store manager, who said they weren’t allowed to answer that question and that we’d have to get in touch with Dollarama’s head office.
Dollarama and Sobeys won't answer our questions
The Examiner contacted the head offices of Dollarama and Sobeys.
We asked Dollarama for details on the policy, including if it was written into lease agreements, if the policy applied to other products they sold in their stores, if the policy applied to other retailers that are in the same shopping plaza as Dollaramas, and if the policy applied to Dollaramas across Canada where there is also a Sobeys store in the same shopping plaza.
A spokesperson named Maxime (no last name was provided) with Dollarama replied with this statement, which doesn't answer any of the questions:
Dollarama does not share information about its leases. Leases are store specific and each lease governs the agreements and operations as agreed to between landlord and tenant. Dollarama aims to provide customers with a consistent shopping experience and compelling value, offering a broad assortment of general merchandise, consumables and seasonal items. All stores are corporately-owned and operated, and are conveniently located in metropolitan areas, mid-sized cities and small towns. Products are available in individual or multiple units at low, fixed price points.
The Examiner also contacted Sobeys and told them about what we heard from Wilson as well as Dollarama staff and managers. We requested an interview and sent a few questions asking about the details of the policy: if the policy is written into lease agreements; if the policy applies to other retailers in plazas where there is also a Sobeys store; as well as what they would say to consumers who shop around for discounted bread. We followed up this email with a phone message on Tuesday, and haven't heard back.
The revelation of the pattern comes on the heels of the bread price fixing scandal involving the major grocers across Canada.
In June this year, the Ontario Superior Court fined Canada Bread $50 million after the company pleaded guilty for its role in a bread price-fixing scheme. On its website, Canada Bread says two wholesale price increases took place in 2007 and 2011 when the company was majority owned and controlled by Maple Leaf Foods.
During its investigation into the price fixing, the Competition Bureau executed a number of search warrants against grocers, including Sobeys.
Larger issue of food insecurity
Wilson ended up purchasing bread at the Portland Street location of Dollarama where there is a Superstore, but no Sobeys location. She paid $2.50 for a loaf of Wonder Bread.
But her experience in bread purchasing got Wilson thinking about the larger issue of food affordability and food security. Wilson was one of the writers on a documentary called Deserted, which chronicles the issues around food deserts in Nova Scotia. Wilson's husband, Ian, is the director and narrator of the documentary, and the Examiner interviewed him in February 2022 about the film and the larger issue of food insecurity (Ian Wilson contacted the Examiner with Mary's story about no bread being sold at the Cole Harbour location of Dollarama).
Deserted noted that Sobeys used to have a location in a small plaza in Woodside in Dartmouth, but when it closed that location in 2009, a covenant on the property said that space couldn't be leased out to another grocer, convenience store, drug store or retail pharmacy, medical clinic, or a home health care business for 20 years.
Mary Wilson said two of the biggest issues around food insecurity are income and transportation:
If you live in an area where access to food is limited or expensive, you can’t walk to get the deals, you can’t drive to get the deals, you have to take whatever is there for you, then that adds to your cost of food. And that is a big driver of food insecurity. Both lack of transportation or having to use transportation and cost. In my mind, it plays into the same thing. It’s still a big corporation making money… maybe you don’t ever think about your end users, I don’t know. There is greed. It’s still that corporate greed. That’s what happened when (Sobeys) pulled out of Woodside.
It’s clear that food security is still an issue and probably more so since COVID. I think in some ways it’s worse now. Food prices have gone up a lot since COVID. And I think barriers to things are what I call daily necessities — and bread is one of those, bread, milk, things people need to survive — I think it’s wrong that we can’t have easy and affordable access to them. It still goes back to that for me.
With files from Zane Woodford
Editor's note: As originally published, the subheadline on this article read "Sobeys was one of the grocery chains involved in the bread price-fixing scheme. Now, a Halifax Examiner investigation finds that the sale of discounted bread is limited near Sobeys locations." Sobeys has contacted us, noting that "No entities other than Loblaw Companies Limited, George Weston Limited, and Canada Bread Company Limited have acknowledged wrongdoing in this matter and no other entities have been charged by the Competition Bureau in this matter since it began in 2017. Sobeys has no reason to believe that it or any of its employees violated the Competition Act, and will steadfastly continue to fight against these irresponsible statements and allegations. We request an immediate amendment/correction to your story to reflect these facts." Fair enough; we have changed the word "involved" to "investigated." As noted in the article, the Competition Bureau has stated that it "continues to investigate alleged price-fixing by other companies" including Sobeys. Despite asking for the correction, Sobeys has still not responded to our questions.